TThe most powerful arguments against Brexit were never about trade and tariffs. It was about peace and war, life and death. One was a blanket argument centered on the true founding purpose of the European Union: to ensure that a continent drenched in blood for centuries would never go into conflict again. The other was more specific, peculiar to these islands: that shared EU membership had proven to be the key that unlocked peace in Northern Ireland after three decades of murderous pain.
The logic was pretty simple. As long as the UK and Ireland were in the same EU club, the border between them could be blurred, allowing people from the north to identify as British or Irish or both without too much friction. That was the foundation on which the Good Friday agreement, signed 23 years ago tomorrow, was built, a foundation that would be broken if either country were to secede from Brussels. Taken together, these were the life and death arguments for the UK to remain a member of the EU, and some bravely tried to present them. But they were hardly heard.
Now, in the dropped petrol bombs and burning buses in West Belfast, ominous evidence emerges that the 2016 warnings were not overstated. Of course, violence has many parents. Some of the areas that are now on fire are among the The most disadvantaged in the UK, with especially low educational levels. Loyalist communities have long felt left behind and, since the early death of the highly respected David Ervine, have lacked strong political representation. Jonathan Powell, the former Downing Street chief of staff who was a key intermediary in the 1998 agreement, says the Democratic Unionist Party “can use [the loyalists]but they don’t really care about them. “
There are also more immediate causes. Last months decision Failing to prosecute Sinn Féin officials who had broken Covid restrictions on attending the mass funeral of a senior IRA commander seemed like double standards favoring Republicans and thus given the zero-sum mentality that persists in places of conflict, automatically injured the loyalists. . Add that along with the Easter weekend, the arrival of the longest “white night” nights, the kids bored by confinement and easily goaded on by loyal gang leaders, many of them similar to the bosses of the Local mob up to their necks into organized crime, and Tinder was dry.
Still, that firewood had been in place in recent years. The incendiary difference this time is Brexit. Starting in January, British goods arriving in Northern Ireland became subject to EU customs controls for the first time. Loyalists consider themselves British; however, there is now an official distinction between them and the country with which they identify.
This is the inescapable logic of Brexit. Once Britain chose to be outside the single market and the customs union while the Irish republic remained within, there would always have to be a border. The only question was where. One option was a land border on the island of Ireland, once again separating north and south, which would horrify nationalists. The other was a border in the Irish Sea, hideous trade unionists. Boris johnson swore blind that he would never agree to such a thing, just to do exactly that – preparation, negotiation, signing and enactment of laws the Northern Ireland protocol, which gives that part of the UK a separate status. The result is that the loyalists feel that, once again, they have lost the Nationalists and have been betrayed by London.
Of course, once Johnson had decided to break his own solemn promise, loyalty and unionism would always be unhappy. But it has made things much worse. Unbelievably, the UK Prime Minister saw fit to do nothing until 9.33pm on the sixth day of the riots, when he issued a cheep calling for an end to violence. Former civil servant Tom Fletcher, who once had responsibility for Northern Ireland in Downing Street, tweeted that “there were times when PM had to break the grid, cancel the break, disappoint people, stay up late, touch phones, spend, flatter, twist his arm, and do nothing else during the week.” This, Fletcher wrote, was one of those moments. However, Johnson is not doing any of those things. What’s worse, if he decided to dominate himself, who among us thinks would be able to do it? The patience, diplomatic intelligence, understanding of details, resourcefulness, and empathy required in such a situation, Johnson has none of them.
Well, maybe he could delegate. Except that even Northern Ireland’s secretary, Brandon Lewis, wasn’t actually in Northern Ireland until Thursday, with Lewis being the latest incumbent to embody the government’s contempt, some might say contempt, for that part of the UK. Remember your predecessor, Karen Bradley, confessing that she had just learned that “nationalists do not vote for unionist parties and vice versa.” One exception was the diligent Julian Smith, who was naturally fired for insufficient loyalty to Brexit.
The obligation now is to make the protocol work, to minimize the tension it causes, which will require flexibility from both London and Brussels. But it will always be a Sisyphus task, because the protocol is a complement to Brexit, and Brexit brought a wrecking ball to the delicate mechanism that was painstakingly assembled 23 years ago. I don’t think Johnson and his fellow Brexiters actively sought the unraveling of peace in Northern Ireland. In a way, it’s worse than that. They were casually oblivious to the anguish and pain that had marked that place. They were not interested. They didn’t care.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism